Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, shakes hands with US President Joe Biden during their meeting at the Villa La Grange in Geneva on June 16, 2021. Photo: Sputnik/AFP
As I see it
by Shi Jiangtao
As I see it
by Shi Jiangtao

As Biden’s foreign policy on China comes into focus, Putin cherishes being the lesser of two evils

  • A meeting between the US and Russian presidents legitimises Putin’s embattled regime, say critics of Biden
  • Biden has already pushed America’s allies and partners towards taking a united stand on China’s perceived threats over Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan
Russian President Vladimir Putin last week offered a philosophical take on today’s world affairs, which in a sense aptly summed up the problems we are facing.
“There’s no happiness in life, only a mirage of it on the horizon. Cherish them,” he said, paraphrasing Russian literary giant Leo Tolstoy, after a summit with American counterpart Joe Biden in Geneva.
Basking in the limelight of the world stage, Putin was responding to a question about the prospect of a new bond with the United States after his first meeting with an American leader since 2018, a summit that ended without any breakthroughs.


Biden tells Putin to try to establish ‘rational way’ to disagree

Biden tells Putin to try to establish ‘rational way’ to disagree
Experts and news media were sent into a frenzy trying to interpret what Putin meant, with little consensus even on whether the Russian strongman’s tone was optimistic or sorely pessimistic.

It was a classic Putin performance, with the president being evasive and sometimes teasing in front of media while denying and deflecting every criticism thrown at him, from human rights abuses to cyberattacks and interference in US elections.

China and Russia once again pledge to strengthen ties

The highly anticipated summit was clearly a victory for Putin, as Biden’s critics claimed, because it gave him what he needed the most – recognition of the legitimacy of his embattled regime and his standing as a world leader. Amid gaping power asymmetries with both Washington and Beijing, some measure of stabilising Russia’s near-wrecked relations with the US, even temporarily, was welcome news for Moscow.

Russian President Vladimir Putin says Chinese President Xi Jinping is a responsible leader capable of solving China’s border problem with India. Photo: Reuters

It would also put Putin in a stronger position to remain largely neutral between Beijing and Washington, despite his country’s growing economic dependence on China and is a potential opportunity for him to offer mediation in their new cold war.

Moscow has tried to defuse the prolonged border tensions between Beijing and New Delhi, mostly through quiet and behind-the-scenes diplomacy, including hosting talks between their top diplomatic and defence officials.
Putin claimed early this month that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping were “responsible” leaders capable of solving the issue without the interference of “extra-regional power”, a veiled reference to Washington and the Quad, a US-led grouping of India, Japan and Australia with a focus on China.

Biden calls Putin a ‘worthy adversary’ ahead of Geneva meeting

For Biden’s America, a summit with Putin was a smart, critical move to stabilise relations with Russia first, as he is moving the centre of global attention to China. Compared to Beijing, Moscow is, in a sense, the lesser of two evils for the Biden administration, which clearly aims to avoid the nightmare scenario of a two-front war with both rival powers. Realistically, Washington’s best hope is to prevent Moscow drifting further into Beijing’s orbit.

Five months into his presidency, Biden has already made headway in pushing America’s allies and partners towards taking a united stand on China’s perceived threats over Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan, while minimising distractions. His first overseas trip to Europe this month, including his meeting with Putin, is particularly illuminating for understanding his foreign policy doctrine centred on winning a long fight between democracies and China-led authoritarianism.

While “each side is motivated more by insecurity than by an ambition to transform the world in its image”, what makes Biden’s job complex is the interdependence between China and democracies, according to Thomas Wright, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Unlike the previous Cold War, “Biden will have to lead democracies in agreeing on an appropriate level of engagement with China”, he said in an article published in the Foreign Affairs journal this month.